Marine Environmental Rules and Standards

(from AMSA Report 2009)


The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, 1973 as Modified by the Protocol of 1978 Relating Thereto (MARPOL 73/78) establishes international standards for pollutant discharges from ships. The standards are applicable in some Arctic waters (Table 4.5). Six annexes set out technical rules and procedures dealing with the prevention and control of pollution from ships by oil (I), noxious liquid substances (II), harmful substances in packaged form (III), sewage (IV), garbage (V) and air emissions (VI).

Table 4.5 Ratification of International Environmental Protection Agreements and Instruments 

Source: AMSA

MARPOL does not totally prohibit the discharge of wastes in the marine environment. Establishing oily ballast and bilge water discharge limits, Annex I is an important annex for the protection of the Arctic marine environment. Oily ballast water from tankers may be discharged at a rate of 30 liters per nautical mile while en route and over 50 nautical miles offshore. Annex I also establishes a 15 ppm discharge limitation on oily bilge water from oil tankers, as well as from other ships. Amendments to MARPOL in 1992 and 2003 introduced a mandatory requirement of double hulls for new oil tankers and an accelerated phase-out period for existing single-hull tankers, as well as prohibition of operation of single-hull oil tankers carrying heavy grade oil as cargo accordingly. A proposal is before IMO to prohibit the use and carriage of heavy grade oil in the Antarctic Special Area, which may be considered in the future whether it should also apply to the Arctic.

Annex IV sets out sewage regulations that apply to ships of 400 gross tonnage or more, or ships that are certified to carry more than 15 persons. Sewage may be discharged at a distance of more than three nautical miles from the nearest land when a ship has an approved treatment system and the sewage discharged is comminuted and disinfected. Sewage that is not treated may be discharged at a distance of more than 12 nautical miles from the nearest land if the ship is proceeding at not less than four knots and the discharge is not instantaneous but at a moderate rate.

Annex V, while prohibiting the disposal of plastics into sea, still allows ships to discharge some garbage generated by normal operations of a ship and depending on the distance from land. For example, ships are allowed to dispose of packing materials more than 25 nautical miles from the nearest land.

Annex VI allows special sulfur oxide (SOx) emission control areas to be declared, where sulfur content of ship fuels would be lowered for designated regions (1.5 percent m/m) from the global standard of 4.5 percent m/m. Amendments to MARPOL 2008 introduced increasingly stringent regulations, including gradually decreasing the global cap for SOx (from 4.5 percent m/m to 0.5 percent m/m) and decreasing SOx and particulate matter in Emission Control Areas from 1.5 percent m/m to 0.1 percent m/m. Stringent controls were also placed on nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions and the ability to create Emission Control Areas for such emissions is now also available. These amendments enter into force on July 1, 2010. However, neither polar region has been proposed for special treatment.

Where the discharge standards under MARPOL Annexes I, II and V are not sufficient for protecting sensitive areas of the marine environment, IMO may designate special areas based on oceanographic and ecological as well as ship traffic conditions. For example, the Antarctic area (south of 60˚ latitude) is designated as a special area under all three annexes and a very high standard for discharges under Annex I has been established, namely a prohibition on any discharge of oil or oily mixtures from any ship. The Arctic may satisfy at least the oceanographic and ecological conditions for special area designation, if not also ship traffic conditions, as set out in the 2002 IMO Guidelines for the Designation of Special Areas under MARPOL 73/78. Before a special area becomes effective, regional coastal states must undertake to provide port reception facilities, an important consideration in the Arctic with its limited port infrastructure.

Marine areas can also receive special protection from the IMO because of their particular sensitivity to international shipping through designation as particularly sensitive sea areas (PSSAs). The IMO has developed Guidelines for the Identification and Designation of Particularly Sensitive Sea Areas, most recently revised in 2005. To be eligible for designation as a PSSA, there must be three elements: (1) the area must have certain attributes as set forth in the Revised PSSA Guidelines, (2) there must be an identified vulnerability from international ship traffic and (3) there must be an IMO measure to address the identified vulnerability. These IMO measures are called associated protective measures and include such things as areas to be avoided, traffic re-routing and separation schemes, mandatory ship reporting, discharges, restrictions and designation as a special area. If the conditions and criteria set out above are satisfied in a given area of the Arctic, that area may be eligible for PSSA designation.

There is also the option of obtaining protective measures under SOLAS without necessarily involving the designation of a PSSA. Routing and reporting measures under SOLAS Chapter V (Regulations 10 and 11) normally associated with safe passage (such as recommended routes, precautionary area and area to be avoided) may be obtained through the IMO to protect the marine environment. Measures of this sort have already been obtained and applied in northern waters, such as Alaska’s Prince William Sound, the Baltic Sea and waters off the coast of Norway, Iceland and Greenland.

The Convention on the Prevention of Marine Pollution by Dumping of Wastes and Other Matter, 1972 and its 1996 Protocol govern ocean dumping from ships (excluding wastes from normal ship operations) and the dumping (intentional sinking) of ships in the Arctic (Table 4.5). The convention permits dumping except for those wastes listed on a “black list” pursuant to a national ocean dumping permit. The 1996 Protocol adopts a precautionary approach, and only wastes listed on a global “safe list,” for example, dredged material and organic wastes of natural origin, may be disposed of subject to a waste assessment audit and a national permit.

Seven Arctic states are parties to the 1990 International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation (OPRC), which sets out a framework for cooperative measures in relation to pollution incidents involving oil (Table 4.5). The 2000 OPRCHazardous and Noxious Substances (HNS) Protocol provides a similar framework for cooperation in preparedness and response measures for dealing with HNS incidents, but not all Arctic states are parties. State parties are required to establish measures for dealing with oil and HNS pollution incidents, either nationally or in cooperation with other countries, and the conclusion of further bilateral or multilateral agreements is encouraged. The OPRC envisages an ongoing need to assess the adequacy of pre-positioned equipment for responding to pollution incidents in light of changing risks, such as an increase in shipping levels.

Under OPRC, trained crew and appropriate damage control materials must be on board ships and offshore installations to implement their ship oil pollution emergency plans to effect damage repair and mitigate pollution, including responding to ice damage. OPRC calls for the establishment of stockpiles of oil spill combating equipment, the holding of oil spill combating exercises and the development of detailed plans for dealing with pollution incidents. State parties have a duty to provide assistance to other states in pollution emergency situations.

Regional and bilateral arrangements are in place that provide a framework for cooperation among some Arctic states under OPRC in the Arctic. For example, the Arctic Council’s Emergency Prevention, Preparedness and Response (EPPR) working group has noted the need to increase communication and to share information with the IMO in such areas as dispersant application, waste removal and treatment, in-situ burn up and spill response in ice and snow conditions. Several Arctic states have joint contingency planning arrangements. They include, among others, the Canada/United States Joint Marine Pollution Contingency Plan for the Beaufort Sea area, the Russia/USA Joint Marine Pollution Contingency Plan, the joint Russian/Norwegian Plan for the Combating of Oil Pollution in the Barents Sea and the Canada/Denmark Agreement for Marine Environmental Cooperation, which includes annexes for responding to shipping and offshore hydrocarbon spills.

The International Convention on the Control of Harmful Anti- Fouling Systems on Ships addresses the use of anti-fouling systems, including paints containing toxic substances such as tributyltin (TBT). The convention, which entered into force on September 17, 2008, requires ships to either not use organotin compounds on their hulls by January 1, 2008 or to have a protective coating to prevent leaching of organotin compounds. Although several Arctic Council states regulate TBT use and the European Union has introduced a complete ban on TBT-based paints, only Denmark, Norway and Sweden are parties to the convention.

An additional vessel-source environmental concern is ballast water, whereby ships take up sea water in order to maintain ship stability and structural integrity. When ballast water is discharged, pathogens and alien living organisms may be released that can disrupt local marine species and ecosystems.

The 2004 IMO International Convention for the Control and Management of Ships’ Ballast Water and Sediments is intended to prevent, minimize and ultimately eliminate the risks of introduction of harmful aquatic organisms and pathogens via ships’ ballast water, but it is not yet in force. The convention details technical standards for the control and management of ships’ ballast water and sediments with the goal of shifting ballast water management from exchange to treatment for all ships by 2016. Among the Arctic states, only Norway has consented to be bound by the convention.

The Ballast Water Convention encourages enhancement of regional cooperation, including the conclusion of regional agreements. The 2007 non-binding IMO Guidelines for Ballast Water Exchange in the Antarctic Treaty Area provide an example of a regional approach. Various measures are recommended, including the exchange of ballast water before arrival in Antarctic waters. The specific impact of ballast discharges in the Arctic marine environment remains largely unknown. These issues require further research.


  •  1. Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment Report 2009

Arctic Council, 2009, Arctic Marine Shipping Assessment (AMSA), Arctic Council.©

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